The Forbidden Game: The Chase Chapter 14
Tom had never shot a gun before. He’d taken this rifle from a case in Zach’s father’s den. Zach’s father wasn’t going to be happy when he found it missing, or when he found the back door jimmied open, either.
But Tom wasn’t going to be around to hear about it.
He had no illusions on that. If he was right, this was strictly a one-way trip.
Of course, Julian’s base might not be up here after all. There weren’t any doors on this mountain slope, and Julian had told Jenny the others were behind a door. But this was definitely a place where the wolf and the snake hung out-and Tom didn’t expect them to pass up the chance to attack him.
If he even got one of them, Jenny’s chances would be better. If he got both, maybe she could actually make it.
The idea had first come to him the night Audrey had disappeared, when they’d all been talking in Michael’s living room. Michael and Dee had been saying that the only way to win Julian’s game was to find the base, and Tom had said, “There might be another way”-and then stopped. The other way that he’d thought of was too dangerous. Too dangerous for Jenny, anyway. It wasn’t a trip he wanted her making.
He’d thought about his idea during the next two days, going over it, debating about whether to tell Dee. She’d want to be in on it, he knew. But that would mean leaving Jenny practically unprotected. That was the basic problem with the idea-if Tom left Jenny, he left her vulnerable.
Then Dee had disappeared-and suddenly the choice had become critical. Soon Jenny wouldn’t have anyone to protect her… and Julian could creep in through her dreams.
That was what had decided Tom in the end. He couldn’t keep Julian out of the apartment-which meant he was no good to Jenny there. What he could do-maybe-was to give her one less enemy to fight.
I’ll bet it took both of them-the wolf and the snake-to get Dee, he thought, trudging through the damp and puddling creek bed. Dee could’ve stood up to either one of them alone-but not both.
Maybe Jenny would have a chance against one or the other of them alone. Or maybe-if Tom’s luck really held-he could get both before Julian killed him.
No one else had even suggested going after the animals. It simply hadn’t occurred to them. They all thought of the creatures as phantoms-and, God, no wonder. The Shadow Wolf Tom had seen on the beach had looked like a moving nightmare, a luminous specter. But it had been flesh and blood.
That was what Tom’s first trip out here had shown. The black and tarry stuff he’d scraped off that rock was blood. Gordie must have wounded one of the animals before it got him. The creatures could bleed -as Tom had proved for himself on the beach. He’d cut the wolf, and his knife had come away dark.
They could bleed, and they left physical marks behind, like the scratches on Audrey’s car. They had some sort of material existence. Maybe they could die.
Tom was going to find out.
Rain was splattering his face. Cold rain, stinging drops-not like a spring shower. The cattails in the creek bed were swaying and dripping. Everything was gray.
He was getting near the place. Not far now. Tom was coming from the south, downwind of the three sycamores. Maybe he could surprise them.
In the gray cold he comforted himself with a picture of Jenny. Jenny-all warmth and sunlight. Golden-glowing, her hair streaming back in the wind. Jenny in the summertime, safe and happy and laughing. That was what Tom wanted-for Jenny to see another summer. In this world instead of the world of ice and shadows.
Even if he wasn’t there to see it with her.
Movement ahead. Tom squinted into the rain, then smiled grimly. Yes, it was there. Black against the gray background, impossibly big, glowing with its own blue light like a rotten log full of foxfire. A creature that looked like a wolf painted with luminous paint on darkness. The sight of it alone was enough to send a human running and screaming, mind broken.
Because it wasn’t real-it was super-real. It was the archetypical Wolf-the one kids dreamed about. The one that had inspired stories like Little Red Riding-Hood. The one that lurked at the back of the human brain, eternally crouched and ready. Reminding people of what the world had once been like, a savage place where humans were the prey. When teeth and claws came at you in the night, and you got eaten.
Funny, Tom thought, how most people these days took it for granted that they weren’t going to get eaten. Not so long ago-a few thousand years, maybe-it had been a pretty serious problem. A constant danger, the way it still was for birds and kittens and mice and gazelles.
The sight of the Lurker, the Shadow Wolf, brought it all back clearly. One look at it and your brain stem remembered everything. How it felt to be chased by something that wanted to tear into your entrails. By something you couldn’t bargain with, couldn’t reason with, something without mercy to appeal to. Something only interested in tearing your flesh off” in chunks.
Tom couldn’t let a thing like that near Jenny.
He was almost close enough now. It was moving toward him, slowly, crouched. He could hear the thick snarls over the patter of rain.
Tom raised the gun to his shoulder.
Careful-steady. He was pretty good at this at carnivals, an excellent shot. The wolf was almost in range. Tom centered the crosshairs–and heard a noise behind him.
A slithering, dragging noise. The Creeper. The Snake.
He didn’t turn. He knew that it was almost on him, that if he didn’t run now-this instant-it would get him. He didn’t turn. With every ounce of his will, he kept his eyes on the wolf.
In range. Now! Now!
A horrifying hiss right behind him –
Ignoring it, Tom squeezed the trigger.
The recoil staggered him. Carnival guns didn’t buck like that. But the wolf was more than staggered. The force of the bullet dropped it in its tracks.
Got it! I got it! I did it –
The snake struck.
Tom felt the blow in the middle of his back. Already off balance, he fell. But he twisted even as he went down. One more shot-if he could get off one more shot –
He was lying in the mud. The snake was towering over him, a column of swaying darkness. Huge, and hugely powerful. Eyes shining with an unearthly light, mouth wide in a hiss. Giant dark head rearing back to strike-Now! For Jenny –
Tom fired straight into the gaping mouth.
The snake’s head exploded.
It was terrible. Dark blood spurted everywhere, stinging Tom’s face, blinding him. Heavy coils, whipping in their death throes, fell on top of him, flogging him. He couldn’t get them off. Everything was blood and darkness and struggling terror.
But I did it, Tom thought, clawing wildly at the flailing, spurting length of the snake. Oh, God, if I can just get out of here … did it. They’re dead.p>
That was when he heard the noise.
A roaring like a waterfall in the distance-or a river. Getting closer fast. And he couldn’t see, couldn’t get up.
Jenny, Tom thought-and then the water reached him.
“Jenny, you’re scaring me,” Michael said. It was almost a whimper.
Jenny herself wasn’t scared. She was cold and clear and furiously angry.
The idea that Julian’s base might be at the creek had passed through her mind once or twice. But she’d dismissed it last night because it didn’t fit in with the door.
Tom had obviously felt differently.
“Keep walking,” she said. It seemed as if they’d been walking forever. She knew they were in the right area because they’d found Tom’s car-but where was the creek bed? Michael was limping badly.
It was a rushing, liquid sound, louder than the rain. Jenny knew what she would see even before they crested the next rise of ground and looked down.
An unusual sight for southern California, where most creek beds were cracked and dusty. This one was full of dark, swiftly moving water-much too full for the little rain that had fallen. There was no natural explanation for it. It was a freak event, a flash flood that should have been impossible.
But it was there. A swollen river by a sage-covered slope leading to three large sycamore trees.
And in a little eddy directly below Jenny, swirling round and round between some rocks, was a neatly folded paper boat manned by a dark-haired paper doll.
She didn’t realize the boat was the next clue until they were back at the apartment.
She had been playing with it all the way. She’d set Tom’s doll on the coffee table with the others, arranging them with mad precision beside the car keys Michael had thrown there. A little line of paper dolls that sat and looked at her as she sat on the couch. She’d been turning the boat over and over in her hands while Michael huddled in a blanket on the love seat.
Then she saw the writing on the waxy paper.
It was very simple, a kid’s riddle. The simplest clue of all.
What gets bigger the more you take away from it?
She’d heard that one in kindergarten, and both she and Michael knew the answer.
“It doesn’t say who’s next-but I guess it doesn’t need to,” Michael said, pulling the blanket closer around him. “He’ll save you for last-the best for last, you know. So it’s me. And it doesn’t say how it’s going to happen, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? As long as you know it’s going to happen, and it is. We know that, huh, Jenny? It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. That Julian, he’s like the Mounties, he always gets his man….” He began to giggle.
“Michael, calm down….”
“So there’s a hole somewhere, and I’m going to fall into it. That’s all we need to know. That’s all, folks.”
“Maybe not. You said Tom went to get the snake or the wolf-maybe he did. And the base wasn’t there, but maybe we can still find it.”
“May be, may be-it’s still May, isn’t it?” He looked at the curtained window. It was fully dark outside. He turned back to Jenny. “You know we’re never going to find it.”
“I don’t know that.” Jenny’s hands were icy cold, but her voice was fierce. “I have an idea-something else Julian said. Something about the hint being as clear as black and white. And before, in my first dream, he said something about image and reality.”
“What is this reality thing, anyway?” Michael said. “I mean, how do we know we ever got out of the paper house? Maybe this is all an illusion, like when you think you’ve woken up but you’re still dreaming. Maybe we’re still in the old Game. Maybe nothing is solid.” He leaned over and hit the coffee table and giggled again.
“Michael, why don’t you lie down? Look, I’ll get you some water-“
“No! Don’t leave me!” He clutched at her as she went by. “If you leave me, he’ll get me! The Shadow Man will get me!”
“Okay, Michael. Okay.” Jenny looked down into the terrified dark eyes and stroked Michael’s hair as if he were younger than Joey. “Okay.”
“It’s not okay. I have to go to the bathroom-but he can get me there, too.”
“No, look, I’ll go with you. I’ll stand right outside the door.”
“He’ll get me. Didn’t you ever hear about snakes coming out of the toilet? He’ll get me, but I have to go,… What a dilemma, huh? Let him get me or bust.” Michael was almost crying, even while he continued to giggle.
“Michael, stop it. Stop it!” For the second time that day Jenny shook him. “Just calm down! The potty monster is not going to get you, I promise. We’ll look for snakes before you go. Let’s do it now and get it over with, and then we can think about the base.”
Michael shut his eyes and gulped in a deep breath. When he let it out, he seemed calmer. “Okay.” But he still staggered like somebody half-asleep when Jenny led him to the bathroom.
“You see? No snakes in there. And I’ll stand right outside.”
“Leave the door open a crack.”
“Okay, Michael.” Jenny stood patiently.
“Jenny?” Michael’s voice behind the door sounded very small. “A toilet’s a lot like a hole….”
“Just do it, Michael!”
“Okay.” After a minute the toilet flushed.
“You see? You’re all right.”
Michael didn’t answer. The toilet went on flushing.
The sound of rushing water.
“Michael, it’s not funny! Come out of there, or I’m coming in.”
The water rushed on.
“Damn it, Michael! All right, I warned you-” She jerked the door open.
The bathroom was empty. The toilet was flushing madly, water swirling round and round. Perched on the edge of the porcelain seat was a paper doll.
Five little dollies all in a row. Audrey sitting with her arm twisted up as if to say, “Can we talk?” Zach with his pencil-shaded face looking sharp and malicious. Dee, who kept falling on her back no matter how Jenny folded her. Tom, with a drop or two of rain still beaded on his wax. And Michael, whose crayon eyes seemed to stare at Jenny in accusation.
She’d promised it wouldn’t get him, and it had.
Jenny was guilty, just as she was guilty of Summer’s death. Not in the sense the police had meant, not the hacking-off-Summer’s-head-and-burying-her-body-in-the-backyard sense, but because she was the one who’d gotten Summer into it. Jenny had invited Summer to play a game that had turned out to be deadly. Jenny had come out alive and Summer hadn’t. Jenny’s Game had killed Summer.
Now it might have killed the rest of her friends.
And she was alone. The apartment practically echoed with aloneness. There was no sound since she had jammed a book under the toilet ball to keep it from flushing anymore.
The rest of them had been picked off one by one. Like ten little Indians. Now she was the only one left, and she was next.
The base. I have to find the base. I have to get them out before Julian gets me.
The hints. She had to remember them. But her mind was so confused. She was all alone-she could feel the air around her. She could feel how each room in the apartment was empty. The emptiness was crushing her.
The hints. Think of them, nothing else. Get them in mind.
But I’m alone –
Image as opposed to reality.
A door she’d seen. A door she’d been through, but hadn’t been through.
Not in the Shadow World. Maybe somewhere halfway.
What else was halfway? Like the More Games store –
Black and white.
A tiny light went on in Jenny’s mind. Yes. It would fit. A door she’d seen and gone through-but that she couldn’t possibly have gone through, depending on how you looked at it. A black and white door.
It was just then that the piece of paper came fluttering down.
From nowhere. It came out of thin air as if someone had dropped it from the ceiling. It skimmed and side-slipped and landed almost in her lap.
Jenny picked it up and looked at the writing.
I’m something. I’m nothing.
I am short. I am tall.
When you fall at your sport, then I stumble and fall. I have never been seen yet beneath a new moon.
I thrive in the evening but vanish at noon. I am lighter than air, I weigh less than a breath; Darkness destroys me, and light is my death.
A little over three weeks ago Jenny might have had trouble with that one. What could be destroyed by both light and darkness? What could be both short and tall? What was something and nothing at once?
But ever since April 22, the day of the Game, the subject of this particular riddle had been on Jenny’s mind. She’d been haunted by it, she’d thought about almost nothing else.
She saw shadows everywhere these days.
She had no doubt about what the riddle meant, either. A shadow was coming to get her-the shadow. The Shadow Man. Julian was going to take care of this personally.
She had barely thought this when all the lights in the apartment went out.
Chills swept over Jenny. Icy fingers stirred the hairs at the back of her neck. Her palms were tingling wildly.
I’m in trouble. Bad trouble. But I think I know the answer now. I know where the base is. If I can just get there … if I can get to it before he gets to me. …
First, find the way out of the apartment.
There was some light coming in through the curtains from the walkway. All right-the front door was over there. Jenny picked up Michael’s keys and made her way to it, arms outstretched.
As she reached the walkway, the lights there went out.
Cat and mouse. He’s playing games with me. All right, play! This mouse is running.
Her hand slid on the wet iron railing as she hurried down the stairs. In the carport Michael’s VW Bug was swathed in shadows. Jenny pulled the door open and slipped in, turning the key in the ignition almost before the door was shut. She pulled out just as the parking lot lights went off.
Right behind me…
She wrenched the wheel and sped out of the apartment complex.
The rain had started again, droplets splattering the windshield. Hard to drive safely. Jenny sped on, hoping no one was in her way.
A stoplight-the brakes screeched. Please, God, don’t let me hit anyone. Please –
The red light winked out, but the green didn’t come on. The stoplight stayed dark, swaying in the rain.
Jenny hit the accelerator.
Canyonwood Avenue-Sequoia Street-Tassa-jara…
The Bug’s engine coughed.
No-let me make it. I’ve got to make it. I’m so close – Jacqueline Drive …
The engine coughed again.
Quail Run! Jenny took the turn dangerously fast, tires skidding. The Bug lurched and a horrible grinding sound came from the engine. Still skidding, it hit the curb-and stopped.
Frantically Jenny turned the key. She got a squeal of metal that set her teeth on edge. Then silence.
Get out! Quick!
Abandoning the key, she fumbled with the door, jumped into the rain. She left the door open and ran.
Up there, just a few more houses. Go, go! She made her legs pump, flying over the wet sidewalk. Don’t look back! Don’t think! Just go!
There it is! You can see it! A few more yards –
Lungs burning, she reached the driveway of the mock Tudor house. Zach’s house. The driveway was empty. She staggered to the garage, seized the handle in the middle of the big door. She pulled as hard as she could.
It was stuck fast. Locked.
Oh, God! Don’t panic. The side door, quick!
As she started for it, she could see down Quail Run, could see the deserted Bug nosed against the curb under a streetlight.
The streetlight went out.
Then the next closest one did. Then the next.
A wave of darkness coming toward her. Bearing down on her. The side door was that way.
Jenny turned and ran toward the front door of the house.
She grabbed at the doorknob while knocking, and to her surprise it turned. It was unlocked. Were they crazy?
“Uncle Bill! Aunt Lily! It’s me!”
She yelled because she didn’t want them to shoot her for a burglar, and because she didn’t care about keeping her secret any longer. She desperately wanted people, any people.
The house echoed emptily in answer.
“Uncle Bill! Aunt Lily!”
The silence was ponderous, a tangible presence. There was no one here. For some unfathomable reason they had gone away, leaving their front door unlocked. Jenny was alone.
I won’t cry. I won’t scream. I just have to get to the garage, that’s all. Nothing’s changed. I can get there easily. It’s just the length of the house away.
Her heart was frozen in panic.
Just go! One foot in front of the other. It’s just an empty house!
The hallway light went off.
Oh, my God-he’s here! Oh, God, he’s here, he’s in the house, he’s got me –
She stumbled into the darkness, heading for the lighted living room. Her legs were shaking so badly she could hardly walk. Her outstretched hands were numb.
She got one glimpse of the living room, then the brass lamp beside the leather couch went out. She banged into a wastebasket made of an elephant’s foot-a thing that had always filled her with horror. She could hardly keep from screaming.
Every inch of her skin was tingling. Shrinking-as if expecting an attack from any side.
It was pitch dark. He could be anywhere around her. Anywhere in the darkness, moving quietly as a shadow himself. If she took a step, she might run right up against him.
She had to do it. She had to find the garage. For Tom-for Dee. They were waiting for her to rescue them. She’d promised Michael…
Sobbing without making a noise, she took a step.
Now another one, she ordered herself. Feel your way. But it was almost more than she could do to reach out into that darkness. Anything might grab her hand. She might reach out and feel anything….
She took another step, groping blindly. Shuffling across the floor. Her hand struck a wall, with emptiness beside it.
The entrance to the dining room. That’s it. And the garage is just on the other side, through the kitchen. You can make it.
She shuffled into the dining room, one hand on the cool smoothness of wallpaper. She could feel the immensity of the darkness on her exposed side. Something could come at her from that side–or from the wall. Oh, God, he makes things come out of walls. Jenny snatched her hand away from the wallpaper. Nothing was safe. He could grab her from any direction.
She staggered forward in the dark and found another empty space-the doorway to the kitchen. Thank God. Now just a few more steps. Turn left around the refrigerator. Good. Now the way was clear until the garage-She stepped against something warm and hard in the darkness. She screamed.
“You didn’t think,” the voice like water over rock said gently, “that I would actually let you get there, did you?”
He was holding her by the upper arms, not roughly but inescapably. Jenny’s eyes were filled with darkness, and the rushing of her own blood filled her ears.
“Actually, I’m surprised you got this far. I didn’t think you would-but I got your aunt and uncle out of the way just in case. An urgent message from their missing son.”
I’m going to faint. I really am, this time.
Jenny couldn’t keep her knees steady. He was half supporting her now.
“Shh. You don’t need to cry. You’ve lost the Game, that’s all. It’s over now.”
Dark. She was in complete darkness. She looked around wildly, turning as far as he would let her. If she could only see a tiny light-but there was nothing. The wolf and the snake weren’t here; she would have seen their sickly, phosphorescent glow. She was alone with the Shadow Man.
And he was going to take her.
“Oh, God, where are we? Are we there already-at the base?” she said hysterically. It was impossible to tell in this complete darkness.
“No. Shh, shh, Jenny. We’re going in a moment. You see, here’s the way.”
Then Jenny did see a light-just a glimmer. A weird, eldritch light like blue electricity. Denning a space opening in the floor behind Julian. A gap, a vortex. A hole.
No … Jenny couldn’t stand to look at the hole. She turned from it and buried her face in Julian’s chest.
“It’s all right. Just a little step. Then we’ll be together, Jenny.” He tipped her face up in the darkness, touching it with fingertips cool as marble.
His touch-so light, so certain. Commanding. As if he could see easily in this utter blackness. So cool. His fingertips traced her wet cheekbone, thumb wiping away the tears. Jenny shut her eyes involuntarily.
The cool fingertips brushed over her eyelashes, stroked the hair back from her temple. She felt one trace her eyebrow.
“It was meant to be, Jenny. You know that. You can’t fight it any longer.”
The finger ran down her cheek like a cool tear. It traced the outline of her lips, the join between upper and lower. A touch so light she could barely feel it. It took the bones out of her legs.
Melting, falling …
“Come with me, now, Jenny.” His fingertips brushed the line of her jaw, sending delightful shivers through her. She realized her head had fallen back. Her face was turned up as if for a kiss. “I’ll go with you. It’s time to concede the Game. To surrender …”
A tiny light went on in Jenny’s mind.
No wolf and no snake. And they were still in Zach’s kitchen, which she knew very well. And the hole was behind Julian-and just beyond that the garage door …
“All right,” she whispered. “All right, but let go of me. I can walk.”
Dee always said surprise was the most important element of any attack. Don’t give your opponent a second to consider.
The instant Julian’s grip loosened, Jenny shoved him.
She didn’t think about it, she just pushed as hard as she could. And he was taken by surprise. Even his snake-quick reflexes couldn’t save him. With a shout the Shadow Man fell backward into his own black vortex.
Jenny leaped over the hole at the same moment.
A jump straight into darkness. If she’d miscalculated, she’d knock herself out against the wall. As it was her hands struck the door, almost upsetting her backward-but she kept her balance. Her fingers closed on the doorknob, she wrenched it-then she was in the garage.
Zach’s flashlight would be on the wall. At least, she prayed it still would be. She flew across the length of the garage recklessly, groping for it. Julian wouldn’t take long to recover-he could be here any second –
Flashlight! Jenny thumbed the switch. She had never been so glad to see anything as she was to see the white circular beam that shot out. Light, at last, light.
She swung the beam to the wall, aiming with dead certainty at what she’d come for. The mural photograph Zach had taken of the high school cafeteria.
Julian had told her that black and white mixed make so many colors-but not in a photograph. A photograph-an image of reality-an image that included a door. The exit door that the pyramid of tables had almost blocked, a door in the shadows behind the tables. A door Jenny had been through in real life many times. But she’d never been through it-because you can’t open a picture of a door.
Unless, like the mural on Montevideo Avenue, it was a door into unreality. Into a place halfway to the Shadow World, like the More Games store. Julian could make images into reality. He could make posters and murals come alive. If Jenny looked at this picture in the right way…
As Jenny stared at the door, the handle seemed to bulge out at her. Three-dimensional. Like the doorknob to the More Games store which had stuck out of the mural.
Julian’s voice behind her, sharp and dangerous. The flashlight went out.
But Jenny had seen where the handle was. She reached for it in the darkness. Her fingers brushed it-it was cold. Real metal in her hand. She had it!
Rushing wind surrounded her. The cold metal seemed to melt from under her fingers, and she was falling. Her scream was snatched away by the thunder of the air.
She had never seen anyone look as surprised as Audrey and Zach and Dee and Tom and Michael did. Their five faces were turned toward her, staring, mouths and eyes open, as she staggered forward and landed on her knees.
Now, what just happened-? Jenny thought, but before she could look behind her, they were all around her.
“You came through the door, “Audrey said, greatly excited. She was still wearing the black Oscar de la Renta dress Jenny had last seen her in, and it was more bedraggled than ever. Her copper hair was down.
“Are you all right?” Tom asked. There were muddy streaks on his cheekbones. He reached out to take her hand, her left hand, without seeming to care about the ring on it.
“Of course she’s all right. She came through the door,” Dee said gleefully. She patted Jenny’s head in a frenzy of affection. “Eat that, monster!” she shouted to the ceiling.
“You lied to me,” Michael said. He still had the hamster look, only now his lower lip was pushed out pathetically, too. “You said it wouldn’t get me, and it did.”
Jenny leaned against Tom’s warmth and solidity and shut her eyes-which made tears trickle out.
She had never been so glad to hear Michael’s complaining in her life.
“It’s you-it’s all of you,” she said, opening her eyes with a little sob that sounded strange even to herself. “You’re really here.”
“Of course we’re here,” Audrey said. She sounded cross, which meant she was feeling affectionate. “Where else would we be?”
Dee grinned. “We’ve been waiting for you to come get us, Tiger. Didn’t I say she would? Didn’t I?”
Jenny looked at Zach. He had black circles under his eyes and his skin had a waxy tint, but there was something oddly peaceful in his expression. “Are you okay?” she said. “Are you all okay?”
Zach shrugged. “We’re alive. It seems like a week we’ve been here, but Tom says it’s only a couple of days. I just wish I could get back and develop these.” He jangled the camera around his neck, and Jenny looked at him in surprise. “Got some great shots of that snake.” His eyes met Jenny’s, and he smiled.
Jenny smiled back.
“I was here alone first,” Audrey was saying. “For more than a whole day. That was fun.” She pressed her lips together.
“It’s not so bad,” Dee said. “It’s sort of like the army. We sleep on the tables-see, there’re blankets over there. And there’s a bathroom, and food comes out there. A cafeteria’s actually a pretty good place to keep people. But we never could get that door open, and none of us came in through it.”
Jenny looked around. It was a cafeteria, all right. The Vista Grande High School cafeteria. Exactly like the photograph, except that the tables had been
unstacked and the six of them were standing around. The only really peculiar thing was that there was only one door in all the four walls, the only door that had been visible in the picture.
“How did you guys get here, then?” she asked.
“Through the ceiling,” Michael said grimly. “I kid you not.”
Jenny blinked up at the ceiling. There was a large black hole in the center. Blue electricity crackled through the darkness.
Tom spoke quietly beside her. “We can’t get up there. We tried. There aren’t enough tables-and something really strange happens when you get anywhere near that high. Time seems to slow down and you start to pass out.”
Jenny looked down from the hole. “But you’re all okay. The snake and the wolf didn’t hurt anybody?”
“No,” Dee said. “They just wanted us to fall in the vortexes. And they’re dead now, you know. Tom got ’em.”
“I think I got them,” Tom said cautiously. “Michael was just telling us that you hadn’t seen them tonight____”
“You did get them,” Jenny said. “You must have, because they’re gone. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do, going off alone like that”-she squeezed his hand hard-“but I’m glad you did, because if you hadn’t I wouldn’t be here. I had to jump over a hole-a vortex or whatever you call it-and if they’d been around, I’m sure they’d have chased me back in.”
Dee looked interested. “So just where was Julian when you were jumping?”
“In the vortex. I pushed him.”
Dee stared at her, then snorted with laughter. In a minute they were all laughing hysterically. Even Zach was chuckling. Dee punched Jenny in the arm.
“He’s gonna be mad,” Michael hiccuped weakly as the hysteria subsided.
“He is. What difference does it make?” Jenny said coolly. “I found the base. I won.” She waved a hand at them. “All you little lambs are free.” Then she looked around and waited.
Everyone settled back. The joyful frenzy showed the first cracks as they stared around them, waiting for some change. Tom’s eyebrows were drawing together darkly. Dee’s beautifully sculpted lips lifted to show teeth.
“Oh, you would, would you?” she said softly and dangerously to nothing. “You cheat.”
“Maybe we have to yell,” Michael said. “Oly-oly-oxen free!”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Zach. “We are in. We want to get out.”
“And he’s got to let us out,” Jenny said. She stood up, looking at the hole in the ceiling. “It’s the rules of the Game. Unless he is planning to cheat,” she added loudly, feeling reckless and bold with Tom’s hand in hers.
“I never cheat,” Julian said, from behind them. “I practice Gamesmanship-the art of winning games without actually cheating.”
Jenny turned. Julian was standing just in front of the door-which was now open. The red Exit sign blinked and glowed madly above it, looking as if it would blow a fuse at any moment. That should have been a good omen, but the look on Julian’s face wasn’t encouraging at all. His eyes were glittering like blue glass, and there was something cruel and predatory about his mouth.
“Then you’ll let us go,” Jenny said, not quite so boldly as before. She steadied her voice and made herself meet his eyes, lifting her chin proudly. “I got in myself, Julian,” she said. “I found the base.”
“Yes, you did.” Even here, in the well-lit cafeteria, it seemed like twilight around him. A strange, enchanted twilight that was somehow brighter and more real than any daytime Jenny had ever seen. “You found the base. You won the Game. Now all you have to do is walk out.”
“While you block the door,” Dee said scornfully. “Looks like you’ll have to do it yourself this time, since your animal friends aren’t here to do it for you.”
“Block the door?” Julian widened his cat-tilted eyes innocently, somehow looking more disturbingly beautiful than ever. And more triumphant. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” He stepped away from the exit, gesturing with languid, careless grace, as if to usher them in. “Go on. All you have to do is walk through there, and you’ll be outside the photograph. In Zach’s garage. Safe and sound.”
“I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him,” Michael whispered in Jenny’s ear. But Dee, always eager for a challenge, was already moving toward the door. She flashed an ebony glance toward Julian as she passed him, and he bowed gracefully. Then he lifted his head and smiled at Jenny, who was standing in the protective circle of Tom’s arm.
“I told you once not to mess with me,” he said. Under his heavy lashes his eyes were blue as flame.
Alarm spurted through Jenny. “Dee- ” she began. But it was already happening.
Just as Dee reached the door, there was a tremendous sound-a sound that was both loud and soft at the same time. It was almost like the sound a gas burner makes when you turn it on and the gas ignites. A muffled whompf.
Only this was a hundred times louder, and it came from all around them. Jenny’s ears popped. Heat struck her from every direction at once, and a blast of burning air sent her hair streaming straight upward.
Dee was thrown backward by the force of the explosion, breaking her fall by striking the ground first with her forearms and palms. The next instant Jenny was holding her, her voice hard with anxiety.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?”
Dee’s sooty lashes fluttered. Her slim chest was heaving, and her neck, long and graceful as a black swan’s, lay arched back on Jenny’s arm.
“I’ll give him gamesmanship,” Dee gasped at last. Her eyes opened into narrow onyx slits, her breath still hitching. “I’ll give him gamesmanship right up the-“
“He’s gone,” Zach interrupted flatly. “And we’re all in trouble, so I wouldn’t waste your breath.”
For a moment Jenny was so glad to see Dee unhurt that she didn’t care. Then she looked up and understood what Zach meant.
They were inside a ring of fire.
It was just slightly smaller than the dimensions of the cafeteria-and for all Jenny knew the cafeteria walls were still outside of it. You couldn’t see through it to tell. It was as high as the cafeteria ceiling, and it was hot.
Incredibly loud. Jenny realized that she and the others had been shouting over it to be heard. It made an unbelievable, unremitting roaring. Like the thundering of Niagara Falls, or the blast of a hurricane.
How weird, Jenny thought, part of her mind examining this fact with a curious calm. I guess when you get to a certain extreme, the elements all sound like one another-fire sounds like water sounds like wind. I’ll have to remember that.
There was something else about the sound. It was deadly.
You knew, somehow, listening to it, that it was absolutely lethal. If destruction had a voice, this was it.
“I suppose that’s why people jump out of windows, even from the twentieth floor, or whatever,” she said to Tom, almost dreamily. “You know, from a burning building, I mean.”
He gave her a sharp look, then lifted her, practically carrying her to one of the cafeteria tables. “Lie down.”
“I’m all right-“
“Jenny, lie down before you pass out.”
Jenny suddenly realized that she’d better. She was shaking violently all over, tiny tremors that seemed to come from deep inside her. Her fingers and lips were numb.
“She’s in shock,” Audrey said as Jenny lay back on the bench. “And no wonder, after everything that’s happened. Jenny, shut your eyes for a while. Try to relax.”
Jenny shut her eyes obediently. She could see the fire just as well that way as with them open. A wave of dizziness rolled over her. She could hear the others speaking, but their shouts seemed thin and far away.
“-not going to last long with this heat,” Tom was saying.
“No-but what can we do?” That was Zach.
“We’re going to get roasted.” And that was Michael. “Better find some mint sauce.”
“Shut up or I’ll croak you myself, Mikey,” Dee said.
I can’t let them get roasted, Jenny thought. Her thoughts were vague and dreamlike, held together by the thinnest of floating strings. It was a state almost like the moments before sleep, when nonsense seems perfectly sensible, and words and pictures come from nowhere.
Right now she was experiencing something like drowning. Her life flashing before her-or at least the last three weeks-or at least bits of them. Disconnected, jumbled images, each sharp as a clip from a high-grade home video.
Julian appeared, beautiful as a December morning, his eyes like liquid cobalt, his hair moon-wet. “I never cheat. I practice Gamesmanship. …”
And Aba, her old face with its fine bones under velvety night-black skin. “Last night I dreamed a Hausa story. …”
And Michael, dear Michael, his hair wildly mussed, dark eyes shining with enthusiasm: “See, your brain is like a modeling system. It takes the input from your senses and makes the most reasonable model it can….”
And Zach, thin and beaky-nosed, gray eyes alight with a fierce gleam. “A picture of a pipe is not a pipe.”
As Jenny drifted, ears filled with the noise of the fire, all the images seemed to float together, merging and intertwining. As if Aba and Michael and Zach were speaking at once.
“Without another word the girl dived into the river of fire. …”
“Touching’s just another sense. It could befooled, too….”
“The image isn’t reality. Even though we’re used to thinking that way. …”
“The fire burned her, of course-my mother always said ‘The fire burned her like fire.
“If a model’s good enough, there would be no way to tell it wasn’t real….”
“We show a kid a picture of a dog and say ‘This is a doggie’-but it’s not. …”
Jenny sat up. The fire was burning as fiercely as ever, like all the beach bonfires in the world fused into one. Tom and Dee and the others were standing in a sort of football huddle a few feet away. Jenny felt light-headed but good. She felt light all over, in fact, as if carbonated bubbles were lifting her toward the ceiling, bursting inside her. She felt glorious.
“That’s it,” she whispered. “That’s it.”
She had to shout to make them hear her. “Tom. Tom, come here-everybody come here. I’ve got it. I know how to get out.”
They crowded around her. “What?” “You’re kidding!” “Tell us.”
Jenny laughed for the sheer pleasure of laughing, feeling crystal clear and brilliant. Like a sphere filled with moonlight. She lifted her arms joyfully, shook back her hair, and laughed again.
The others exchanged glances, their expressions changing from excitement to consternation.
“No, it’s okay,” Jenny assured them. “I know how we get out-we just walk. Don’t you see? The fire isn’t real! It’s a model our brains are making.”
They didn’t look nearly as happy as she would have thought. They blinked at her, then at one another. Michael opened his mouth and then shut it again, looking nervously at Audrey. Audrey sighed.
“Ah.” Dee glanced at the others, then patted Jenny’s shoulder. “Okay, Sunshine. You go back to sleep, and later we’ll talk about it.”
“What, you think I’m joking? I’m not. I’m telling you-we can walk right out of here.”
“Uh, Tiger-” Dee looked over her shoulder at the fire, then back at Jenny. “I hate to tell you, but that fire is not a model in my brain. It’s hot. I’ve got blisters.” She showed Jenny several fluid-filled bumps on her hand.
Jenny looked at them, briefly shaken. Then she recovered. “That’s because you let it happen. You believed in the heat, and it gave you blisters,” she said. “No, Dee, don’t humor me, damn it!” she added. “I’m serious. You know how hypnotized people can get a blister if you tell them that you’re touching them with something hot-even if it isn’t hot. It’s like that.”
Michael ran his hands through his hair. “No, but Jenny, it’s really hot. You can’t even get near it.”
“That’s because you believe it’s hot. You were the one who said it, Michael: If a model is good enough, you can’t tell the difference between it and reality.” She looked from one face to another. The glorious lightness had disappeared; now she felt crushing disappointment. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you? All of you.”
“Jenny, you’ve been through so much-“
“I don’t want sympathy, Audrey! I want you to listen. Will you listen, Zach?” She turned to him desperately. “Remember Magritte? You told me that the image is not the reality, and I said, ‘Unless you have somebody who can make an image into reality.’ But what if that’s not what Julian does? What if he doesn’t make an image into reality, but he makes us think it’s reality? If he shows our senses something so convincing that our brains make a model of it and believe it-even though it’s just an illusion? Like a dream.”
‘”What if?'” Zach quoted back to her. “That’s a pretty big if, Jenny. What if you’re wrong?”
“Then we’re toast,” Michael muttered.
“But it’s the only thing that makes sense,” Jenny said. “Remember, Julian said he wouldn’t actually cheat. If the fire’s real and there’s no way to get through it, then that’s cheating. Right? Don’t you think?”
“I think your faith in him is charming,” Audrey said acidly, her copper-colored eyebrows raised. She looked at Tom, but Tom looked away. Refusing to side against Jenny-but not looking at Jenny, either.
“It’s not just faith in him. It’s sense,” Jenny said. “Don’t you see: Aba had a dream almost exactly like this. And the girl in that story came through all right. Her will was strong enough.”
“But the fire burned her,” Michael pointed out.
“But it didn’t kill her. I’m not saying it won’t hurt-I’m sure it will, from the look of Dee’s blisters. But I don’t think it will kill unless we let it. If our will is strong enough, we can get through.” But she could see by their faces that they were still unconvinced.
Despair clutched at Jenny’s chest. “Dee?” she said, almost pleading.
Dee shifted uncomfortably. “Sunshine-if it were anything else… but I’ve been there. It sure felt like a real fire to me. And even if I could convince myself to walk in-what happens if I get into the middle of it and my will suddenly isn’t strong enough?”
“… toast,” Michael said.
Audrey spoke decisively. “It’s too big a risk.”
“When an illusion is that good,” Zach said, “it might as well be real. It can still kill us.”
“Okay,” she said. “I understand-if it wasn’t my own idea, I’d probably think it was crazy, too. And I’m the one who got you all into this, so it’s only fair I get you out. I’m going in alone.”
Tom’s head jerked around. “Now, wait a minute-” he said at the same moment Zach said, “Now, look-“
“No, it’s decided,” Jenny said. “I have the best chance, since I’m the one who believes I can get through it.”
“That’s only if your theory is right,” Dee said, standing in front of Jenny to block her. “If you’re wrong, you’re dead wrong. No, Sunshine, you’re not going anywhere.”
“Yes, I am.” Jenny leaned forward, eye to eye with Dee, matching the other girl’s volume and ferocity. “This is my decision. I’m going and no one is going to stop me. Get it?”
Dee let out her breath sharply. She glared-but she fell back to let Jenny pass. Michael, eyes wide, moved hastily out of the way, tugging Audrey with him. Even Zach, although his face was white and furious, recoiled a step, unable to hold Jenny’s gaze.
It was Tom who caught Jenny’s arm. “Just hang on a minute,” he said, his voice reasonable. Jenny turned on him, holding her head up like a queen because she was frightened to death, because he was the only one here who might be able to undermine her determination. In her mind’s eye she could see herself standing there, drawn up to her full height, with her hair loose on her shoulders in the firelight. She hoped she looked commanding. She felt tall and proud-and beautiful.
“I said nobody is going to stop me, Tom. Not even you.”
“I’m not trying to stop you,” Tom said, still quiet and reasonable. His hazel eyes were steady, almost luminous in the light of the fire, and his face was clear. Tranquil, with a look of utter conviction. “I’m going with you.”
Jenny felt a rush of warmth and dizzy gratification. She grabbed his hand and squeezed hard. “You believe me!”
“Let’s go.” He squeezed her hand back, then looked at it and took the other one, the one with the ring. His fingers interlocked with hers, and Jenny felt strong enough to jump over the fire. “Come on.”
They turned to face the fire together.
It was good that Jenny was feeling invulnerable just then, because the fire was terrible. Hotter than putting your hand in an oven. Jenny could feel sweat trickle down her sides as they approached it; the skin on her face felt tight and hot and tingling.
“We’d better do it fast!” Tom shouted over the roar.
Jenny pointed with her free hand. “I think the door is there.”
“You guys, now, wait, you guys-” Michael was yelling.
Jenny looked at the firelight reflected in Tom’s eyes. “One, two, three- “They nodded at each other and started for the flames, ignoring the panicked shouts behind them.
“Cool, wet grass! Cool, wet grass!” Tom shouted, and then the fire was all around them.
Jenny’s skin burnt off.
That was what it felt like. As if it were flaying off in strips. Searing crisp and black until it cracked open. Charring. Frying like bacon. Her hair igniting, burning like a torch on her head.
It had been easy to say “Just walk through the fire, it’s a model, it isn’t real.” But the moment she stepped into it, she understood what Dee meant about it feeling real. If she’d gotten close enough before to feel anything of this heat, she would never have dared to suggest it.
That first second was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to Jenny. It was agonizing-and she panicked. She lost her head completely. She’d been wrong, it wasn’t an illusion after all, and she was in the middle of afire. She was on fire. She had to run-to run-to get away from this. But she didn’t know which way to go. The roaring, crackling, killing flames were all around her, burning her like a wax doll thrown in a furnace, roasting her alive.
I’m dying, she thought wildly. I’m dying –
Then she heard the faint shout from beside her: “Cool-wet-grass! Cool-wet-grass!”
And she felt Tom’s hand in hers. Tom was pulling her, dragging her along.
I’ve got to make it-for Tom, she thought. If I collapse, he won’t leave me. He’ll die, too. We’ve got to keep going….
Somehow she made her legs move, lunging desperately through the flames in the direction Tom was leading her. She just prayed it was the right direction.
“She was terribly afraid, but her love for the boy was stronger than her fear. …”
“Cool, wet grass!” Tom shouted.
Then a great, rushing coolness burst over Jenny. She fell headlong into darkness and then into light. She hit something hard and unyielding, and she and Tom were rolling.
They were through.
She was on the floor of Zach’s garage. The concrete felt as cold as ice, and she pressed her cheek against it. She stretched her whole body out on it, soaking up the blessed chill. She wanted to kiss it.
Instead, she scrambled to one elbow and looked at Tom. The garage light was on; she could see him. He was all right, his eyes just opening, his chest heaving. She kissed him.
“We did it,” he whispered, staring at the ceiling, then at her. His voice was awed. “We did it. We’re actually alive.”
“I know! I know!” She hugged and kissed him again, in an agony of joyous affection. “We’re alive! We’re alive!” She was wildly exhilarated. She’d never known how good it was to be alive until she thought she was dying.
Tom was shaking his head. “But I mean-it was impossible. Nobody could have lived through that fire.”
“Tom-” She stopped and stared at him. “But, Tom-it was an illusion. You knew that-didn’t you?”
“Uh.” He gazed around, then puffed his cheeks sheepishly, for a moment looking like Michael. “Actually, no.”
“You didn’t believe me?”
“Then why did you go with me?”
He looked at her, then, with eyes that were green and gold and brown like autumn leaves swirling on a pool. “I wanted to,” he said simply. “Whatever happened, I wanted to be with you.”
Jenny just stared at him a moment. Thunderstruck. Then she whispered. “Oh, Tom!”
And then she was in his arms, sobbing breathlessly. Just his name, over and over. She thought her heart would burst.
I could have lost him. I could have lost him forever. All his brave goodness-all his love for me. I could have lost him … I could have lost myself in Julian’s darkness.
Never again, she thought fiercely to herself, clinging to Tom as if something were trying to rip her away. The shadows have no power over me anymore. It was as if the fire, the great cleansing fire, had scorched all the dark thoughts out of her. Burning away the part of her that had responded to Julian, that had craved his danger and wildness. Taking that part like a sacrifice. Now that Jenny had come through the fire, she felt purified-renewed. A phoenix reborn.
But the strength that she’d gained from fighting Julian was still with her-that hadn’t changed. She was stronger than ever since she’d come through the fire. And she could love Tom more because of her strength. They were equals. They could stand side by side, neither eclipsing the other.
And she knew now that she could trust him to the end. She only hoped he knew the same thing about her-or that she could prove it to him. She was happy to spend the next few decades trying.
Tom’s grip on her hand changed. He’d been holding it bruisingly hard; now he turned it over and pulled back to look.
Jenny lifted her head from his shoulder.
“It’s gone,” Tom said wonderingly. “The ring.”
“Of course,” Jenny said and nipped his chin. Nothing could surprise her now. Everything was going to be all right. “It’s gone-because we won. I’m free. Know anybody who wants one girlfriend, low maintenance, good sense of humor?”
“God, Jenny.” His arms tightened rushingly. “Nope, guess you’ll have to put an ad in the classifieds,” he said into her hair. “Oh, Thorny, I love you.”
“You must, you called me Thorny,” Jenny said, blinking away tears. “I love you, too, Tommy. For always and always.”
Then, in the midst of her euphoria, she thought of something.
“We’ve got to get the others, you know-oh, my God!” She had just looked at the mural photograph on the wall.
It was on fire.
“You stay here!” Tom was on his feet, whipping off his jacket. He reached for the metal handle of the door in the picture unerringly.
“I’m coming with you!” Jenny shouted back. She grabbed his hand as he pulled on the handle. “You never go anywhere without me again-“
The darkness snatched them up, sucked them in. Deposited them in fire.
It wasn’t as bad this time. Jenny put her head down, clung to Tom’s hand, and made her legs run. It’ll be over in a minute, she told herself as the agony surrounded her. Over in a minute, over in a minute-Then it was over. Cool air was around them. Dee, Zach, Audrey, and Michael were in a row, staring at them, reaching out to catch them as they tumbled in.
“You see?” Jenny gasped to Dee, who was nearest. “All in your mind.”
“Oh, God, you’re alive!” Dee’s hug bruised like Tom’s.
“Not a very original observation,” Tom said. “Now, look, here’s the deal. It’s hot and it hurts, but it doesn’t kill you. You count about to ten and you’re through. Okay?”
Only ten? Jenny thought, sagging a little in Dee’s arms. “It feels like a hundred,” she confided to Dee’s shoulder.
“Think ‘cool, wet grass,'” Tom said. “Like firewalkers do. Keep thinking and keep going and you’ll be okay.”
Dee nodded. “Let’s do it!”
But Michael’s eyes were wide and uneasy, and Audrey recoiled a step. Zach remained very still, looking at Jenny. Then he let out his breath.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s just an illusion. Unreality, here we come.”
“Hurry up, move,” Tom said to the others. “We have to get out before this damn photograph burns up. Who knows what happens then.” He grabbed Michael by the sweatshirt, then took firm hold of his hand. He held out his other hand to Dee.
Jenny grabbed Audrey.
“No!” Audrey screamed. “I don’t want to-“
“That way!” Tom shouted to Michael. “Go on! Straight ahead!” He gave Michael a push that sent him stumbling forward. Dee reached behind her to grab Audrey’s hand and pull her along. Jenny shoved Audrey on from behind and held out her free hand to Zach. She felt his thin strong fingers close over it. She felt heat billow up around her.
Then it was like a wild game of crack-the-whip, with everyone surging and running and pulling-and Audrey, at least, trying to pull in the wrong direction. Fire filled Jenny’s eyes and ears. She tried to count to ten, but it was impossible-her whole mind was occupied with the struggle of keeping Audrey going forward.
Fire and pain and heat and yanking on her arms –
Then Zach stumbled.
Jenny didn’t know how it happened. Her hand was suddenly empty. She groped wildly with it and found nothing. She turned her head, looking frantically
behind her. For an instant she thought she saw a black silhouette in the orange inferno, then the flames blotted it out.
She opened her mouth to scream, and burning air filled her lungs. She choked. She was being pulled forward. There was nothing she could do-unless she let go of Audrey. She was being dragged along. Zach was far behind now.
Then she burst out into coolness and fell.
She landed on top of Audrey. Audrey was whimpering. Jenny was still choking, unable to get her breath.
She was so hot and exhausted and sore. Everything hurt. Her ears were ringing. Her eyes and nose stung, and when she tried to get up, her legs collapsed under her.
But she was alive. And Audrey was alive, because she was making noise. Michael was alive, coughing and gagging and beating at his smoking clothes. Dee was alive, pounding the concrete and shouting joyously.
Tom was alive, and on his feet. Tall and handsome and stern.
Jenny’s throat was raw. “He let go,” she said, almost in a whisper. “He tripped and he let go of my hand-“
Dee’s grin collapsed. She stared up at the photo on the wall. Flames were licking out of it.
“I couldn’t hold on to him,” Jenny said, ashamed. “I couldn’t help it____”
“I’ll get him,” Tom said.
“Are you crazy?” Michael shouted. He broke off, bending over in a fit of coughing. Then he spat and lifted his head again. “Are you nuts? It’ll kill you!”
Audrey had rolled over to look up at the photograph with terrified eyes, her spiky lashes matted together.
“We should get a fire extinguisher-” Dee began.
“No! Not till we get back. It might do something-close the door or something. Just wait for us-we’ll be back in a minute.”
Jenny swallowed dryly. The fire had been worse this time; it must be getting worse every second.
But Zach. Her gray-eyed cousin. He was lost somewhere in that fire. She couldn’t just leave him….
“Oh, God,” she sobbed. “Tom, I’m going with you.” She tried to get up again, but her legs simply wouldn’t obey. She looked down at them in astonishment.
“No!” Tom said. “Dee, take care of her!”
“Tom-” Jenny screamed.
“I’ll be back. I promise.”
He was reaching into the picture-pulling the handle. Then he simply disappeared. The flames shot out and seemed to grab him like hungry hands, snatching him inside. He was gone-and the photograph was ablaze.
Every inch of it was burning now, flames bursting up and fanning out. Leaping so high that at any other time Jenny would have been terrified at the mere sight, afraid for Zach’s house. She’d never seen an uncontrolled fire this high.
At this moment all she cared about was the photograph. The entire picture was on fire, blackening and peeling. The image was fading under the flames.
“No!” she screamed. “Tom! Tom!”
“We’ve got to get water!” Dee shouted.
“No! He said not to … oh, Tom!”
It was burning. Burning up. Burning out of all recognition. Turning into a black curling mess. The pyramid of tables disappearing as flames licked over them. The door was gone now. The Exit sign was gone.
Dee’s strong hands held her back, keeping her from trying to jump into the photograph. It was no use anyway. There was no handle sticking out of the picture any longer. There was nothing left at all.
The flames began to die as the last of the photo was consumed. Bits of it fell off. Other bits floated in the air, drifting down slowly. Sparks danced upward.
Then it was just a charred and smoldering rectangle on the wall.
Jenny fell to her knees, hands over her face. She hadn’t known she could make sounds like that.
“Jenny, don’t. Don’t. Oh, God, Jenny, please stop.” Dee was crying, too, dripping tears down her neck. Dee, who never cried. Audrey crawled up on the other side, wrapping her arms around both of them. They were all sobbing.
“Look, you guys-you guys, don’t,” Michael gasped. Jenny felt a new pair of arms around her, trying to shake all of them. “Jenny-Jenny, it might not be so bad. He might have made it through. If he made it through to the cafeteria, he’s okay.”
Jenny couldn’t stop sobbing, but she raised her head a little. Michael’s face was grimy and anxious and deadly earnest.
“Let’s just think about this. It took more than ten seconds for that picture to burn up. And he could go faster without all of us to hold him back. So he probably did make it through-and that means at least he’s alive.”
There was a shaking in Jenny’s middle. “But-but Zach-“
“He may have made it back, too,” Michael said desperately. “He may be okay.”
Jenny looked up at him. The shaking didn’t stop, but it lessened. She felt more connected to the world. “Really?” she whispered. “Do you think?”
Just then Dee made an odd sound, as if something had bitten her.
“Look!” she said.
Jenny twisted her neck and followed Dee’s gaze to the photograph. Then she hissed and turned around all the way to stare at it.
Letters were appearing on the blackened surface, just as letters had appeared on Michael’s window in the unnatural frost. Only these were graceful, looping letters, flowing script that ran along the length of the picture. As if a giant calligraphy brush were painting them on the blackness. They glowed red as coals, and wisps of smoke rose from them as they appeared.
Your friends are with me-in the Shadow World. If you want them, come on a treasure hunt. But remember: If you lose, there’s the devil to pay.
“Oh, no,” Michael whispered.
“But they’re not dead,” Audrey said, a little tremulously. The red letters were fading already. “You see, they’re not dead. Julian’s keeping them to bargain with.”
Dee just said, “God.”
Jenny, though, sat back on her heels, her hands opening and closing. Working, getting ready for action. She thought of the Shadow World, of the swirling ice and darkness in the closet, and the cruel, ancient, hungry eyes there. Tom was somewhere among those eyes, and so was her cousin.
She knew this-but she wasn’t shaking anymore. All her weakness and confusion had evaporated. She had heard the challenge and understood.
She wasn’t afraid of Julian now. She was stronger than she had ever been before-stronger than she had known she could be. And she knew what she had to do.
“Right,” she said and heard her own voice, clear and cold, like a trumpet. “He wants a new game? He’ll get it. I know I can beat him now,”
“Jenny-” Michael began, looking at her fearfully.
Jenny shook her head, straightened her shoulders. “I can beat him,” she said again with complete confidence. To the smoking photograph, black and empty again, she said, “En garde, Julian. It’s not over till it’s over.”